City Paper is not for tourists
Ophelia’s House bounces back from a vicious attack.
In December 1999, Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Care caseworker Amanda Nevers decided to act on an idea she’d been nursing for over a yearto create a nonprofit organization for young women. Nevers envisioned a “safe place,” where they could hang out together and get employment advice or academic help from mentors. She decided to name it Ophelia’s House.
“In D.C., if you live in the inner city, you’re either at home or on the streets,” observes Nevers. “There aren’t places to go that are safe hangout spots.” By December 2000, the new “safe house” had received 501(c)(3) tax status.
When the Ophelia’s House board members learned that Sherlie Scribner, CEO of the Children’s Funda McLean, Va.-based group that supports small family- and child-oriented nonprofits by providing them with financial serviceswanted to help the safe house, they leapt at the chance to meet with her. The Children’s Fund gives nonprofits a hand with tasks such as paying invoices and processing tax forms, payrolls, and donations.
Scribner says that the Children’s Fund was impressed that the programs Ophelia’s House had already implemented were attracting interestand by the group’s commitment to fundraising and getting grants.
It seemed like a perfect match, so Scribner and the board set up a meeting at Nevers’ group house in Columbia Heights, which serves as a meeting space for Ophelia’s House’s twice-monthly dinner groups, on Jan. 31, 2001, to finalize the agreement. When Scribner phoned that night to say that she was running late, the board decided to take care of other business.
A few minutes later, the board members heard screaming coming from the street outside. They called 911, and as they unlocked the metal gate across the front door, Nevers and the others discovered that the screaming had come from Scribner.
Scribner recalls that she was having a hard time reading addresses as she drove down Euclid Street, so she took the first parking spot she found: across the street and a few houses up from Nevers’ home. After exiting her minivan, she noticed a man a few car lengths away in the street, walking purposefully toward her.
Scribner started to scream, but before she could get back into her car, the man stabbed her in the chest and slashed her twice across the right hand. He grabbed the box that she was carrying and hit her on the neck and jaw with it. Though Scribner managed to activate her car alarm during the attack, it was her screaming that got the attention of Nevers and the board.
For Ophelia’s House, the notion of a “safe place” had taken a terrible twist.
Scribner has since recovered enough to return to her full-time job at the University of Virginia in Falls Church, though she may need therapy for her hand, which sustained nerve damage and still hurts when she writes. Her assailant has yet to be apprehended.
“I don’t want them to feel bad about it,” says Scribner, noting that six Ophelia’s House board members live in the neighborhood where she was attacked. “They are as likely victims as I am. That is what concerned me. They are living in a very unsafe place.”
An incident like the vicious attack on Scribner could sink a fledgling nonprofit. Nevers and the eight Ophelia’s House board members have doubled as its staff as well, and they’ve often paid for expenses out of their own pockets. The “house” itself, in fact, is a network of ad hoc spaces. Board meetings are held at office space at the U.S. General Accounting Office, where board co-president Erin Barlow works as a senior program analyst. Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy donates space for activities such as SAT-prep classes. The mailing address for the organization is Nevers’ group house in Columbia Heights.
Yet the same pluck that Nevers and the board have shown in starting the safe house has helped the group turn a highly negative incident into something positive.
Several board members indicate that the crime, although traumatic, has underscored the importance of the group’s mission.
“It enhances and augments the fact that there is a need for a safe space,” says board co-president Cristi Benitez.
Nevers admits that the attack outside the safe house on someone in a position to help her group “was really upsetting. It was an obstacle that we hit really early on. This is where I live. I don’t want to move out, but I also don’t want to pretend like it never happened.”
Nevers responded to the attack by soliciting grants to increase the safety awareness of those involved with Ophelia’s House and the community around it. Youth Service America recently awarded Ophelia’s House a $500 Washington Direct Change award, which Nevers used to sponsor two 90-minute self-defense workshops run by a karate black belt. The classes were held last weekend, and Ophelia’s House used the occasion to distribute safety and crime-prevention information in various District neighborhoods. The group is also taking extra precautions, including ensuring that no one comes alone to evening group meetings in Nevers’ neighborhood.
Despite the attack on Scribner, the Children’s Fund hasn’t wavered in its support of Nevers’ nonprofit. “Ophelia’s House is very impressive,” say Scribner. “They are doing all of the right things.” She calls the group “one of our shining stars.”
The support offered by Children’s Fund has come in handy as Ophelia’s House continues its substantial fundraising efforts. It also has obtained the volunteer services of a strategic planner to chart a course for the group over the next one to five years.
Buying or leasing a house is high on the group’s wish list. “You can’t begin to envision your goals if you don’t have a safe place to go in the afternoon after school,” says Ophelia’s House board member Ashley Pierce. CP